About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What Does God Love?

In my opinion, one of the most stimulating reads of the past few years has been Mark Robson’s Ontology and Providence in Creation. I’m privileged to be in contact with Mark, and he’s written the following post for this blog. I hope you find it as enjoyable and interesting to read as I did.

What Does God Love?

Many Christians say that John 3:16 is their favourite verse. It forcefully and dramatically conveys the wonder of the Christian message: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (NIV). What does God love? ‘The world’ we are told. But what exactly is the world, and why does God love it? This is what we shall briefly investigate.

I sometimes ask my students to imagine something, say, a tiger. They do so. They think they have a pretty good image of a tiger in their minds. They are then asked to count the stripes on the tiger’s back, or count the tiger’s whiskers. They are taken aback. They were certainly imagining a tiger, but they had not concerned themselves to imagine it in such fine detail! The tiger they were imagining did not seem to have a determinate number of stripes upon its back or a set number of whiskers. This is, of course, quite unlike a real tiger, which presumably possesses no such indeterminacy! Every real tiger has all its properties set in flesh and fur – an imagined tiger, in contrast, seems to lack this full set of properties. Of course, if we try hard, we might be able to mentally determine the number of stripes along the imagined tiger’s back, but there are limits to our imaginative powers. I don’t possess the imaginative capacity to imagine each hair that comprises the tiger’s fur for example. I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to either, even if you try really hard. Our imaginations are limited.

Is God’s imagination like this as well? Of course we want to insist that God’s imagination possesses no such limitation! When we think of God creating the world we suppose He had a specific, fully determinate world in mind. We think of God as thinking through what He is going to create. He thinks, for example, of you and me, Adam and Eve, Mount Everest, and all the rest. He picks that world then makes it real. So is the world that God has in mind exactly the same as the world that He creates? There is certainly a strong inclination among believers to say that it must be. As we have said, surely God has no limits to His imagination. When He imagines a tiger, and then makes it real, surely the imagined tiger has exactly the same number of hairs upon its back as the real tiger. God knows exactly what He is going to make and makes it. He does this by using His unlimited imagination.

Can God know every aspect of a person or thing before He creates it? Again, many believers want to say an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ We want to say that there isn’t any aspect of the divinely imagined you that is not thought about by God before you are made. He can know what your smell will be like, what you will feel like, what your thoughts are to be. If you hope that one day Newcastle United will win the cup, God will know exactly what your hope will be like. He is not in the least bit surprised when you are made and He knows your disappointment when Newcastle consistently fail to win the cup. He knows your disappointment before you feel it. Our imaginative capacities and powers are so limited and indeterminate. God’s imagination, on the other hand, is infinitely discriminative.

But think through this contrast a little bit more. When I make something I do so partly because my imagination is so bad. The resultant real thing has a life of its own, which it could not have in my imagination. I make a model aeroplane, for example, because I can look at the real model in a way that I cannot when it merely resides in my imagination. But if God is so good at imagining people and worlds and Mount Everests before He actually makes them, why does He go to the trouble of making them real? There doesn’t seem to be anything he is adding – after all, haven’t we said that the imagined you is exactly the same as the actual you! We’ve already said that God is not in the least bit surprised at whatever He creates because He knows exactly what He is doing in the creative act. He knows what He is doing by looking at His perfect imagined representations of you and me and Mount Everest. So what is the point of creation? Why doesn’t God just content Himself with examining mental people, mental worlds, mental stones and trees?

Possible Answers
One answer could go like this. Imagined people – even if they are determinate in every property – do not actually exist. They do not exist in reality. They only exist in God’s mind.

What shall we say to such an answer? Well, for one thing, it seems to have a very low view of God. Although it exalts His imagination, it says that God’s imagined persons are not really real – they do not exist in reality. But surely to exist in God is to exist in the most supreme kind of reality there could possibly be! Do we want to say that so-called actual existence is somehow to take on a better form of existence – as if perfectly determinate existence in God’s mind is not somehow good enough! If all we mean by actual existence is that the imagined you is ejected from God’s mind into so-called reality, this seems a bit like a punishment. If so, then, Plato was right. To be in this world is to have left the perfect world behind. However, I don’t think any Christian understanding of creation should say this. Surely creation is something rather marvellous and wonderful!

So what does God add to His imagined you? Another answer could be this – he adds self-consciousness – the imagined you is devoid of life and feeling and that special feel it is to be you. God, in His graciousness, gives the imagined you an internal set of feelings.

This, I think, is a better answer. But I don’t think it is good enough. It seems to me that the imagined you has to have self-consciousness before you are ‘created’. This might seem shocking. Surely an imagined thing is just a mental thing – it must surely be devoid of life and feeling. It surely has no first person perspective!

But remember what we said before – God is not in the least bit surprised at what He creates. God’s imagination is infinitely more discriminative than yours. There is nothing in the created you to which God can say ‘I didn’t expect to see that!’ Recall that the imagined you is meant to be perfectly determinate in every aspect. Why should we say that this only counts for physical properties and not mental ones? God has to see what you feel from the inside before He makes you. If He doesn’t, then, He will see something new that He didn’t see before.

What’s Gone Wrong?
Somehow, somewhere we must have gone along the wrong path. In my view, it was where we said that for God to have a perfect imagination He must be able to peruse perfect copies of the things He might make actual. This seems to reduce creation to the duplication of already perfectly real entities – as if creation is God copying out what He has already eternally contemplated. These copies are sent out of God to live and work in a lesser reality. Instead of creation being a wonderful making of things from nothing, we have a rather miserable picture of being somehow (r)ejected!

Christianity teaches us the wonderful truth that God created from nothing. There were no things which are made ‘actual’, or copied out into a lesser reality. God loves us because we are brand-new without divine precedent. As Genesis testifies, God sees that creation is good, not some dimmer, less grand version of what He sees in Himself.

It seems to me that God loves this world because it has life of its own. We might even go as far as to say that it is an Other. God is able to make that which is, in a very special sense, independent of the divine. Without God, of course, it could not be, but the wonderful thing about our Creator God is that He can make something absolutely new and novel. He loves Others, not just dimmer copies of some aspect of Himself as if He could only bring Himself to love that which reflected Himself.

God is amazed at you because once you simply did not exist! God’s exuberant creative act is truly creatio ex nihilo! God is wonderfully original, and He loves the world that He has created so much that He was willing to give His only begotten Son to die upon the Cross.

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